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Egyptian Unrest: Local Movement Or Voice Of The 'Arab Street'?

A protester gestures in front of a burning barricade during demonstrations in Cairo on January 28.
A protester gestures in front of a burning barricade during demonstrations in Cairo on January 28.
For years, the "Arab Street" has occupied a mythical place in the contemporary political lexicon -- an imprecise location presumed to harbor radical and potentially dangerous opinions.

In Egypt, the term's mythlike status burst dramatically into reality as demonstrators took to the streets for the fourth day running.

In the capital, Cairo, and across the country -- from Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast to Al-Arish on the Sinai Peninsula -- protesters cast off a long-held sense of fear and oppression to vent their anger, only to be met by fusillades of tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannon, and baton charges from heavily armed riot police.

It's a stunning display of defiance that threatens to topple the authoritarian rule of President Hosni Mubarak, who has held power for almost 30 years.

The protests followed hard on the heels of similar mass street rallies in nearby Tunisia that unseated the government of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and ushered in a so-called "Jasmine Revolution."

They also coincided with similar displays of discontent in other Arab countries. On January 28, demonstrations were reported in Jordan, one day after protests rocked Yemen. There has also been unrest in Algeria. The governments in all the affected countries are Western-backed.

The simultaneous uprisings moved Amr Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign minister, to tell the Davos Economic Forum that "the Arab citizen is angry, is frustrated. So the name of the game is reform."

Regional Ripples

Maha Azzam, an associate director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the London-based Chatham House think tank, says the causes of the protests in Egypt are similar to those that have affected its neighbors, and stem from a lack of accountable, democratic government.

"We've already seen the emergence of protests in Jordan, in Yemen, in Algeria, and therefore [Egypt's] are not localized protests," Azzam says. "What we are seeing is something that is much more wide-ranging. The discontents are similar. They are to do with anger at the political situation, at authoritarian regimes that have existed for such a long time, and there's a general call for political reform and accountability.

"A lot of these countries share economic problems in common that are to do with high unemployment, corruption in high places, and a general lack of development in all spheres of the economy and in education. The protests we are seeing in Egypt are on a large scale, but I think they will have ripples throughout the region."

In that respect, Azzam argues, the Arab Street cliche does apply to the unfolding protests in Egypt and elsewhere.

"What we are seeing is the Arab Street, or an important segment of that street, because we are not seeing only one political force protesting," Azzam argues. "We are seeing a number of political trends on the street.

"Therefore, what we are also seeing is a sense of maintaining peaceful protests. What the protesters are calling for is not a stance against the West. It's not anti-American. Their issue is domestic. Their issue is with their political regimes. And this is a very important change whereby we are seeing people protesting in Egypt, in Yemen, and in Jordan saying that what they want is a change of the political system at home."

Washington Watching Closely

As a key ally of the United States that has signed a peace treaty with Israel, Egypt's political future is crucial to Western interests.

The main fear for Western policymakers is that the Mubarak regime could fall, to be replaced by an Islamist government that would renounce the 1979 peace accords with Israel and perhaps strike an alliance with Iran, until now a foe of Egypt.

The concern was given added impetus when the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical Islamist organization which initially shunned what had started as a middle-class secular movement, announced that it would join the protests on January 28.

Although other fundamentalist organizations, such as the Salafists and Sufis, have said they will not take part, partly on religious grounds, the Brotherhood's presence could lend the demonstrations a potentially decisive weight of numbers -- and a radical, new anti-Western edge.

Such thoughts seemed to be in the mind of the U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, earlier this week when she described the Egyptian regime as stable and "looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people."

The remarks drew criticism from the de facto Egyptian opposition leader, Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize-winning former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who pronounced himself "stunned" by them in comments to CNN.

"I ask myself at what price is stability?' said ElBaradei, who after returning to Egypt from Vienna three days into the protests said the Mubarak regime was on its "last legs."

"Is it on the basis of 29 years of martial law? Is it on the basis of rigged elections? That's not stability, that's living on borrowed time," said ElBaradei, who was reportedly placed under house arrest amid the January 28 protests.

Azzam says Washington would be well-advised to voice support for the protests against ostensibly pro-U.S. Arab regimes that she describes as "a liability to American interests."

"This shift is a very important one that perhaps needs to be re-evaluated in the West and the United States," she says. "The call today is for greater democratization in the region and the focus is not anti-American.

"And it will make a huge difference if the United States and its allies now make their stance much more clear in terms of a call for free and fair elections in these countries."

Obama's Equivocation

U.S. President Barack Obama, speaking on January 27 in an interview that was streamed on YouTube, appeared to acknowledge the need for an American expression of solidarity.

"There are certain core values that we as Americans believe are universal: freedom of speech, freedom of expression, people being able to use social networking to communicate with each other," he said. "That is no less true in the Arab world than it is here in the United States."

But he crystallized the foreign-policy dilemma posed by the crisis by calling on the government and the protesters equally to desist from violence in a formula that again appeared to express tacit misgivings about an anti-Western government taking power through violence.

"My main hope right now is that violence is not the answer in solving these problems in Egypt," he said. "The government has to be careful about not resorting to violence and the people on the streets have to be careful about not resorting to violence. I think it is very important that people have mechanisms in order to express legitimate grievances."

Obama's equivocation was echoed by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, now a Middle East envoy, who told the BBC that Egypt and other Arab countries need to "evolve and modernize" but "in a stable and ordered way" so that extremist groups do not fill the political vacuum.

"This is not limited to one country in the region. It's all over the region," Blair said. "You have got to take account of the fact that when you unleash this process of reform, unless you are going to be very, very careful about how it's done and how it's staged, then you run risks as well."

It seemed like a clarion call for moderates of the Arab world to unite. Unless the tensions that are now finally boiling over can be controlled quickly, it may not be the message that resonates on the Arab Street.